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Woodstock, public works union in dispute over handling of health care change

Published: Wednesday, May 21, 2014 4:32 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, May 22, 2014 12:11 a.m. CDT

WOODSTOCK – The union representing Woodstock’s public works employees alleges the city violated Illinois labor law when it sprung a meeting about a new health plan on the employees without first notifying the union.

In a complaint compiled by the Illinois Labor Relations Board, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 says Woodstock called a meeting on or about Nov. 8 to inform public works employees their health insurance coverage was changing and that benefits would be reduced. Woodstock failed to notify union representatives of the meeting, the complaint alleges.

“Health and welfare is a main subject of the bargaining agreement,” said Ed Maher, Local 150 spokesman. “If they wanted to change the benefits, they’d first have to notify the union and set up a meeting to talk about this.”

According to the complaint, the meeting was called by Woodstock Human Resources Director Deborah Schober. But in Woodstock’s written response filed last week, the municipality says the meeting was held by a “unit employee based upon his participation in the City’s health insurance committee.” Schober “offered to assist,” the response says.

The complaint currently awaits a hearing date from the labor relations board. Maher questioned the logic of having a “rank and file” employee call a city meeting. And he questioned the legality of a city health insurance committee that didn’t include union representation.

“That is a committee that the union was never made aware of,” he said. “To suggest that they would have a rank and file public works employee represent the union is illegal.” Despite original plans, the city eventually held firm on benefit levels for public works employees, City Manager Roscoe Stelford said.

“They were never changed to the other plan,” Stelford said. “We had talked about moving them to the other plan. Ultimately, they did point out to us in the contract that their benefits do have to stay substantially similar.”

Maher maintains the city had already purchased a plan to incorporate public works employees by the time they were made aware of the stipulation, and that switching those employees out of the plan cost taxpayers an extra $100,000 – a point Stelford disputes.

Such details about a potential breach of the bargaining agreement aren’t part of the labor board dispute but are the subject of pending arbitration, Maher said.

The two sides also disagree on whether switching into a union-sponsored health care plan would ultimately save the municipality money. That point, Woodstock said in its response, has been a hang-up during past talks.

The response says the city has “gratuitously and continuously” tried to bargain over insurance and has met with the union several times on the matter, but that union representatives have been “inflexible” toward any plan that isn’t their own.

Maher called those claims vague.

“It sort of points to previous negotiations instead of working on the task at hand,” he said.

Stelford disagreed. He said those conversations occurred leading up to Woodstock’s decision to change health care plans, and included direct talks between the city and the union.

“They believe that there might be savings if we were to look at other potential health plans, and we don’t necessarily agree with their calculations or the fact that savings exists,” Stelford said.

A three-year collective bargaining agreement between the two sides expired at the end of April. The union hasn’t begun formal negotiations on a new contract, instead choosing to focus on the complaint to the labor board, Maher said.

But Schober drew a relation between the complaint and contract negotiations.

“I feel this event is part of the bargaining process,” she said. “And the city of Woodstock does not negotiate through the media.”

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